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Ron Smith answers reader's questions about the world of plants and gardens.

By Ron Smith, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension Service

Q: I frequently read your column and enjoy it, but this time I thought I'd take a moment to write you a note. I live on our family farm south of Jamestown near Nortonville. I have a tree grove that is in sad shape because it is very thin in spots. Grandpa planted it back in the late ‘40s when he moved here. It has what I believe are Chinese elm and plum trees. The plum trees are reasonably thick, but not the elms. All I'm interested in is wind protection, so recommending any species to plant would be greatly appreciated. I get a lot of the Chinese elm volunteering around my house, so last spring I dug some up and transplanted them in my grove, but almost none grew. The volunteers were in full leaf when I dug them up, so I wonder if I planted the trees too late. We have rich, black soil and I believe the moisture level should be adequate for most varieties. Part of the grove is in a low area, so some years there is standing water in the spring, with a heavy concentration of barnyard runoff from my beef operation. I was told willows were a good choice, but that idea didn’t work. Lastly, what is the correct time of the year to prune heavier limbs on trees such as elms, cottonwoods, and also black and blue spruces? (e-mail reference)

A: Thank you for writing and being a loyal reader! I need to make a quick correction to begin with. What you and most everyone else call Chinese elms are Siberian elms. The true Chinese elm is a beautiful, stately, small tree that is not hardy to our area. Chinese elm has beautiful, exfoliating bark as it matures and, unlike other elms, flowers in the fall. The Siberian elm is fast-growing, weedy, inhabited by insects, ravaged by diseases and extremely sensitive to herbicide drift. The only saving grace it may have is the fast growth. To transplant volunteer seedlings, you need to dig them up while they are dormant and plant as soon as possible. The seedlings need to be planted at the same depth as before. Ash trees have been recommended in the past, but now have become overplanted and with emerald ash borer breathing down our necks in a few years, I have to put a hold on recommending planting ash at this point. American elms, black locust and poplar species are suitable for your situation. The willows may have died because of the soil salts being too high. You might want to get the soil tested in the problem area. As for major pruning, now would be a good time to start, at least on the deciduous trees. There are no insect or disease problems right now and the branches are visible for good pruning cuts, but wait until the weather turns a little milder. For evergreens, I would suggest waiting to prune until just before new growth emerges in the spring.

Q: I've repotted all of my house plants using new pots and a mix of new potting soil, peat moss and perlite. I'm wondering what I should do with the old soil. Should I bake and keep the soil for future use or should I trash the soil? If I am able to keep the soil, what would be the best way to store it? (e-mail reference)

A: I recommend mixing the old soil in with your landscape or gardening soil. It will be recolonized by soil microorganisms and become a part of the soil ecosystem if you mix it in well. You could bake the soil and reuse it for potting plants, but usually the soil structure is so badly destroyed from being containerized that it is poor-draining and often high in salts. If you choose to store it, any kind of weatherproof container that will keep the elements at bay will do the job.

Q: We have an old green ash tree. About 75 percent of the tree’s branches on the north side are dead (brittle and void of leaves). The rest of the branches are healthy. It has good protection from the elements. Any ideas as to what to do? (e-mail reference)

A: This means that only 25 percent of the tree is alive, so it is not worth anything to consider keeping because it is not fulfilling its architectural, aesthetic or functional role in the landscape. What killed it could be determined by a lab diagnosis, so you are better off taking it out at your convenience. Bark beetles, lilac/ash borers and cankers are among some of the leading causes of ash tree decline.

Q: This is my first attempt at growing an amaryllis. After the plant blooms, I know it is good to keep the leaves on the plant until after summer. However, today, as I was repotting my amaryllis, one of its five large leaves broke off. Does this mean the amaryllis won’t bloom next year? (e-mail reference)

A: Realistically, the plant likely will not rebloom next year anyway, so losing one leaf will make little difference. These are tropical plants, so unless you live in such an area, it often takes a couple of summers to accomplish the feat of getting the plant to rebloom. If you live somewhere such as Georgia, Florida or Alabama, there is a good chance your plant would bloom next fall because of the higher light intensities and longer growing seasons.

Q: We are designing a residential landscape project with a customer who is interested in bringing native grasses inside the house. The customer is prepared to have recurring expenses and maintenance. Also, available for these plants would be grow lights, an indoor irrigation system and specialized planters. At this point, the customer is willing to spend whatever it takes to achieve the desired effect. Are there any recommendations you could offer that could help me select the best available varieties? The house is surrounded by a large prairie restoration project, so tropical, grasslike plants would not fit. The optimum we would like to achieve is vigorous, healthy plants throughout the year. (e-mail reference)

A: As long as the client is willing to shoulder an ongoing expense of plant replacement and upkeep, the sky is the limit on your selections. Given enough light intensity and duration to cover the changing season of growth, you could design anything that would suit the client's tastes. As for winter character, you could add Karl Foerster feather reed grass and Canada wild rye as well. The reed grass is native to Europe, but has taken well to our climate. It is striking while in flower and through the winter. Little bluestem is as well. What one could do is have the two growing outside in containers. When the weather turns them into their winter colors, bring them inside for the winter months to add realism to the setting. I'm afraid that if they are planted indoors and allowed to stay, they would go from looking great to sad. Keeping up with the seasonal changes is what adds to their dynamic character, which I think your client is attempting to recreate indoors. Good luck!

Q: We have a number of Japanese cutleaf/laceleaf maples. Some of the maples have become quite large relative to their location. There is a younger one we would like to keep, but it is dwarfed by the taller trees. All the maples are healthy and thriving. Do you have any suggestions on how to prune the taller maples to achieve size reduction? (e-mail reference)

A: Assuming you live somewhere on this continent, I would encourage you to employ someone competent in pruning techniques. I suggest contacting someone who is an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist to do the job. Be sure to check credentials and references before allowing any work to be done on these beautiful trees. If anybody tries to convince you that the answer is topping the trees to bring them down to size, throw the person off your property and report him/her to ISA headquarters.

Q: I have an apricot tree that keeps losing all its fruit before it ripens. What can I do to prevent this from happening? (e-mail reference)

A: This usually is caused by an insect called the plum curculio. Spray the tree with Sevin at the time the blossoms start to drop. Repeat the application in about 10 days. Picking up all fallen fruit will break the cycle somewhat.

Q: Your Web site is the best I have found on the subject of fruit trees. My son gave me three old apricot pits he says came from some exotic tree, but I haven't a clue how to plant the pits and don’t know if it is possible. I live in southern California and would appreciate any guidance you might offer. (e-mail reference)

A: Everything depends on where your son got the seeds from. Did he get the pits from a tree that is growing in the north where the change in seasons is abrupt or from your area where the seasonal changes are very mild? Without knowing that, all I can do is give you some options. I would suggest placing the pits in dampened sphagnum moss and then placing the seeds in the crisper of your refrigerator. If they are still alive, embryonic roots should emerge in 70 to 90 days. If nothing shows after this time, dump them. Assuming they do produce roots, gently remove and pot the roots in sterilized or pasteurized potting soil and place them where they can get direct sun. Keep the media moist. After about three months of growth, carefully plant the trees where you want them to grow. In a few years, enjoy the fruit.

Q: I read through your Web site, but did not find anything to answer my questions. I have a beautiful, large spider plant that I have had for more than three years. The plant always bounces back from my forgetfulness or my overabundance of love (water). I moved to Florida from Pennsylvania six months ago. The plant tolerated the move well, with the exception of a few stalks on one side getting damaged and dying off. The plant is out on our screened porch and seems to be loving it and producing babies with great gusto. About a month ago, I removed about half the babies. About a week after that, I removed some more of the babies that had the beginnings of root systems developing and moved them to two large dishes of water. These also are thriving and need to be potted soon. However, the plant still is covered with babies and constantly producing more and more flowers. I finally have a plant I can keep alive and make it grow! Today I realized that I had neglected to water the plant for almost two weeks. When I went to water the plant, a ton of little gnats flew up. I also noticed that the plant was looking rather pale. The leaves are limp and have a pale, whitish look rather than a robust green. Some of the leaves have turned brown. As I went to remove the brown leaves, I noticed some are covered in white, furry growth. I removed as many of the nasty, brown leaves as I could. Are bugs causing this white growth or is it a mold or fungus? How in the world do I treat it? (e-mail reference)

A: Bugs and Florida more or less go together. I would suggest starting out with a complete repotting of the plant. Cut away any rotted or diseased plant parts in the process and then wash the healthy foliage with an insecticidal soap (wear rubber gloves). Be sure to use pasteurized or sterilized potting soil and a fresh, new container. Keep the plant inside the porch as much as possible. As you said, these are tough plants that tolerate a lot of unintended or other abuse. With some tender, loving care, I think you'll see your plant recover nicely.

Q: I am looking for your help again. I am interested in planting a cherry tree or two. I am wondering if you could suggest a sweet cherry that is hardy in North Dakota. I saw in a magazine that a new variety from Canada is available. I don't think it is a sweet cherry, but the ad says it has "the best aspects of sweet, tart and bush-type cherries." It is called Carmine jewel dwarf cherry. Have you heard anything about this variety? Also, does black knot disease affect this type of cherry tree? Almost all the chokecherry trees in the area have black knot disease, which is killing them. I am worried that if I plant a cherry, it will get infected. (e-mail reference)

A: That plant should make it in our area. However, it produces a tart cherry. As to the black knot disease, if you commit to looking after the tree and giving it protective sprays on a regular basis and eliminating as many of the infected trees in the immediate area as possible, you will greatly lessen the chance of this tree becoming infected. I'd say go for it! You have to try something new every now and then.

Q: I have had an Engleman ivy growing along a chain link fence for about 25 years. I never have trimmed or pruned it for fear of killing it, but it is getting a lot of dead wood along the top of the fence. I feel it should be pruned, but I don't know how far to prune it or when to do it. Any advice will be greatly appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: It would take almost a direct hit from a nuclear explosive to kill an Engleman ivy that is that old! Prune it according to your desires and needs.

Q: We live in a development that has red, flowering plum trees. We love the spring flowering and bird hosting by the plum trees. The homeowners association claims that the roots will tear up driveways and the small, private street in front. Each tree (there are 12) is planted on a mound between two driveways. The association is attempting to persuade the homeowners to remove the trees. (e-mail reference)

A: The association is in error in its beliefs. Plum trees are not noted for their ability to tear up driveways, streets or sidewalks. Mature elms, oaks, maples and poplars have that reputation. Plum trees are considered ornamental trees, with shallow, fibrous roots. The nursery industry likes plum trees because they are easy to dig up and transplant. That is what I know about plum trees from the more than 50 years of being a horticulturist.

Q: I have some young zestar, honeycrisp and state fair apple trees that had a bad case of fireblight last summer. I cut out the infected branches and the entire tree in some cases. However, the disease keeps showing up on other branches. (e-mail reference)

A: Fireblight comes about as an interaction between the environment and the susceptibility of the tree species. Apparently the pathogen is rampant in whatever area of the country you live in. Check with the neighbors to find what problems they may have. As to whether it will keep showing up is difficult to say because I don't know the environmental conditions you are dealing with. Normally, these species are not known to be vulnerable to fireblight. However, if it makes a return showing next year, I'd certainly get rid of the trees.

Q: What does a person do with 25 to 50 wild turkeys that walk the streets of Jamestown like they own it? You better get out of their way. Someday a small child will get hurt because the turkeys are nothing to mess with. They roost in trees that hang over entrances to homes and then poop on the porch, car and driveway, so look where you step. One day I got up and my backyard was full of turkeys. I went out to shoo them away with a dishtowel, so the turkeys finally left. Later I heard a gobble, gobble again. There were three turkeys back that were about half as big as my refrigerator. I tried to shoo them away with my towel, but the dominate turkey fluffed up its feathers and came after me and the other two followed. There was a fence between us, so I was able to run into the house. The other day my son and I were watching the turkeys on the other side of a man-made drain. We watch deer in the trees all the time at that spot. The turkeys were there first this time and getting ready to roost for the night. When the deer showed up and got close to the turkeys, one of the turkeys got so mad, it stuck out its neck and took after the deer and the others followed. The turkeys shot after the deer like bullets, so the deer turned and ran. The deer didn't come back, but the turkeys did! (e-mail reference)

A: You may want to call the North Dakota Game and Fish Department for some advice because I'm not an expert on how to get rid of wild turkeys. I'm also sending you some information I found on the Web.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Ron Smith, (701) 231-8161,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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